Last week’s parasha was Korach, and the question I asked, along with so many, was “What did Korach do that was so wrong?” He challenged Moses’ and Aaron’s, asked what made them so special, after all, the whole community is holy, yet he ended up getting swallowed up into the earth, along with his followers.
This week, the parasha is Chukat, but we may well be asking the same question about Moses: what did he do that was so wrong?
The people were complaining…again…about having no water. Miriam had just died and was buried at Kadesh, and we read immediately that the community was without water. Rabbis say that the water dried up after Miriam died; she was the one who knew where the water was. God tells Moses and Aaron to, “take the rod and assemble the community and before their very eyes, order the rock to yield its water.” (Num 20:8) Moses took the rod, gathered the people, and said, ‘Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?’ And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drink.” (Num 20:9-11)
By the end of the parasha, Moses has been told by God that he will never see the Promised Land, that his whole reason for leading the people, was now ending before completing his task. The people would indeed get into the Land, but Moses would never see it, never step foot in it, never live there.
All because he hit the rock twice to get the people water? That seems awfully harsh, and again, we ask, “What did he do that was so wrong, to have earned such a painful decree?”
Some say Moses’ big crime was that he defied God in front of the people, that it was public display. Some say he and Aaron tried to take God’s place as the giver of miraculous water (“shall we get water for you…) Back in Exodus, when the people were thirsty, God told him to strike a rock, and it worked; maybe he didn’t see the difference in circumstances, and just worked off what he’d done before. Some say it was because he lost his temper. But let’s look at some context.
Miriam had just died. Miriam was Moses’ older sister; she’s the one who saved him from the Nile, got his mother to care for him in the palace, and had stood by him throughout the Exodus and wandering. Moses couldn’t have known that Aaron was about to die, too. Moses’ support system, his inner circle, was collapsing. And, remember that he was facing an entirely new generation of Israelites. The generation of the Exodus had died out, and only the old guard was left – Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Caleb and Joshua. What Moses thought his leadership role was seemed to be changing, too. It took one kind of leadership to get the people out, but it would take a different kind to be with them in the Land.
The people were complaining. Miriam was gone. Moses just snapped. He yelled at the people, he hit the rock, and suddenly it became clear to him. He was getting too old for this. It would soon be time to step aside, and that may have been part of his anger, too. God wasn’t just punishing Moses; perhaps God was showing him in clear relief, “Your time is coming to an end. They still need you now, but not forever.”
We can’t always see when our role is about to change. We may feel cheated that we can’t do what we’ve intended to do all along. But ultimately, fighting back with anger isn’t going to help, and it will rob us of clarity – clarity of the moment when we’re still needed, and clarity of when we’ll be ceding over to the next generation.